In this article, I'd like to discuss an idea that ties together psychology and spirituality. It gives a new spin on the theory of the "subconscious mind," and explains why the spiritual journey can sometimes feel challenging.
Let me begin the discussion with a story.
Once there was a man who was dissatisfied with his life. Although he lived comfortably in a peaceful community of people, he felt that he deserved something better.
"The people here don't treat me properly," the man would often say to himself. "I'm smarter and more ambitious than most of them, and I deserve more respect than I'm getting. I don't fit in here. Perhaps I should just strike out on my own." He grumbled like this for years.
Then, one day, the man took a long walk. While walking, he stumbled upon a lovely piece of land. It was miles away from the town.
"This is perfect!" the man exclaimed. "You know, I can build a new home for myself here. I don't need all those people any more. I'll take care of my needs, and no one will bother me."
The man then began the work of building a home. After considering a few designs, he decided to build a tall tower. He would live in the top section of the tower, with a garden on the roof. The bottom of the tower would contain all sorts of traps to keep away threats.
The man labored diligently on his tower for months. Eventually it was ready: The traps were set at the bottom, to protect him against those who tried to take over his tower. And he was safely ensconced in the top. He would grow his own food, catch rainwater, and so on. It was a perfect plan.
And for quite some time, it worked. The man passed his days in the comfort of his tower, safely distanced from the unappreciative townfolk. He would sometimes feel lonely, but he was generally comfortable.
Then the years began to pass. Many days, the man would admit to himself how alone he felt – but he comforted himself with the thought that at least he was free from the disrespectful people of the town. And he was safe in the tower. Although he was lonely, his needs were met.
Finally, there came a day when the man looked down from his rooftop and saw a group of people approaching. These were the first people he had seen since he left the town. The group walked to a hillside near his tower and laid a blanket on the ground. It was a small family, out for a picnic lunch.
The man watched from a distance as the family ate their food and enjoyed the surrounding countryside. They seemed happy – and they barely noticed his tower. The man began to feel wistful. As he watched them pack up and walk away, he said, "Maybe people are nicer in that town now."
For the next week, the memory of the family haunted the man. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, building this tower," he thought. "I sure do miss talking to people. But on the other hand, I'm pretty comfortable here."
The man wrestled with these thoughts for days. Finally, he made a decision: He would journey back to the town and see how things had changed. Perhaps he could try harder to make a few friends. Maybe there were some people whose company he would enjoy.
The man was suddenly happy, thinking thoughts like these. He gathered a few things and began running down the spiral staircase in his tower. When he reached a bolted door, closed for so long, he unlocked it, threw it open – and froze in horror. Suddenly he remembered what he had done.
When the man began building the tower, he was worried that people from the town would try to take it over. So he constructed a series of elaborate traps designed to attack invaders. These traps were brutal, and the man felt bad about building them. But he felt that they were necessary. As a compromise, he had posted signs outside of the tower warning about the impending danger.
But now, years later, the man couldn't remember what he had built. Vague memories of the devices were all he had.
The man stood at the door for a long time, contemplating what he had done. After a while he slowly closed the door and walked back up the stairs of his tower.
"If I try to leave, I may die," he said. He looked around himself. "But I can't live in this tower any more. What should I do?"
I share this story in order to illustrate a perspective on the psyche. In the story, the man represents each of us. The tower is a map of the mind. In this map of the mind, there are three levels.
Let me sketch them out:
The bottom level is our natural state. In fact, it's not really a "level," but our reality. Deep down, we remain connected to each other in love. We are joined as members of one spiritual family. We were created in love, and on the deepest level, this is how we remain.
However, at some point we decided to try a new experience. We began to construct a personal tower of the other two levels. First, we built a level designed to keep away love. Then we built a more comfortable layer on top of that, in which to spend our days.
Most of us live in that top layer. We spend our time trying to make the top of the tower more comfortable, while simultaneously dealing with the sense of loneliness and disconnection that it involves.
The spiritual journey usually begins when people get a sense – however dimly – that the top of the tower isn't the real deal. No matter how comfortable we make it, it's imprisoning. We weren't created to live in towers, by ourselves. Our real environment is outside, with others.
And here is where things become challenging. Like the man in the tower, we might have a sense of where we need to go. But in order to exit the tower, we need to deal with the middle layer.
The top level of the tower – the place where most people spend their days – isn't particularly threatening. When you're living on the top of the tower, you don't feel a great deal of love toward people. However, you don't feel a great deal of hatred or fear, either. You just feel "normal." It can feel stable, if a bit lonely.
The spiritual journey tends to dissolve this normalcy and stability, as many people will attest. As we begin our journey out of the tower, we begin to realize how much "buried" negativity there is within our minds. That is the result of uncovering the middle layer.
As an example, we may find currents of resentment toward certain people in our lives; strains of self-condemning thoughts; fears of intimacy and connection; worries about losing control. We may feel unstable, aimless, directionless at times. We may feel self-doubt. We may feel more anger than usual.
This is just some of what's inside the middle layer – a level that may have been "subconscious" before. We're now bringing this layer into our conscious awareness. Mystics have described this as facing the "dark night of the soul." Psychotherapists have their own names for it. It's not always an easy process.
However, every time that we identify an element of the middle layer – and become willing to let it be removed – we create a space for the love in the deepest layer to shine through.
The experience is something like being inside a cave, and clearing the rubble away from the entrance. Each time we acknowledge a piece of our middle layer, and allow it to be removed, a stream of fresh air and sunlight shines forth.
As I go along, I personally find myself feeling more love – and more negativity – toward both myself and others in my life. Although disconcerting, this is, I think, a normal part of the spiritual process. As we move forward, the blocks to love become more obvious (and intolerable), which supports us the process of letting them go. The experience can feel "messy," but it's effective.
I sometimes think of Saint Francis when considering the journey through these three levels. Saint Francis was born into a wealthy family, and lived a normal life. At one point, however, he decided to take the journey out of the tower. As he moved forward, he began to experience both significant doubt and fear – and the glorious love for which he is known.
His journey could be called "messy." There was often significant resistance to the experience of love. But in the end, he became so filled with divine joy that he sat with birds, preaching to them of God's Love, unable to contain what flowed through him.
That is the result of uncovering – and being willing to release – the second-level blocks.
Through the Tower
As an epilogue to the story, let me return to the man and the tower.
Although the man didn't know it as he stood at the door, the traps he had built in the bottom level of the tower had rusted and fallen into disarray. They were quite harmless. They had, in fact, never really worked at all.
The man didn't know this, of course. And so he remained in the top of the tower until he couldn't stand it any longer. Then, trembling, he began to move through the middle layer. He anticipated violence at every step. But in fits and starts, he moved forward.
He eventually exited his tower, breathed a sigh of relief, and moved back to the town with a newfound appreciation for the people there. His tower remained as a reminder of what he had been through. Every so often, he'd pay it a visit and remember the journey – glad that he was free.